July 31, 2004

ITF #145

In the Future...

......sheep will learn to make rudimentary tools, and then we're screwed.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.

Posted by Phil at 06:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 30, 2004

The Council, Installment #3

The bird on Dr. Randall Drayton’s windowsill chirped in alarm and flapped out the open window. Patricia turned to see what had startled it.

The room seemed out of focus. She rubbed her eyes.

There was a man’s head in the middle of air in the kitchen. Patricia opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. A body followed, as if the man was stepping through a slit in the fabric of the room. Dressed in a long gray tunic and trousers, he was so tall that Patricia had to crane her neck to look up at him. His long, black hair was brushed off his high, golden forehead and tied back. Standing very still, he surveyed the room with large, dark, canted eyes.

Patricia struggled to make sense of him. The fact that he was Oriental tempted her to believe that he was real. She wouldn’t have been inventive enough to conjure him.

Randall gripped Patricia’s hands, staring at the intruder, but his gaze was fixed on the man’s chest and not his face.

Patricia saw it, then. The 3 Score and 10 logo was emblazoned on the front of the gray tunic.

“Dr. Drayton,” the man said in a voice that smoothed the ragged places in Patricia’s nerves, “for Dr. Bedford’s sake, please do not resist.”

Randall released his grip on Patricia’s hands. “You’re taking me?”

The man’s eyes narrowed, but his voice remained gentle. “Under the circumstances, you both require our protection until Dr. Bedford’s hearing.” He turned to Jim. “We’ll need to take your house robot, too.”

Jim blinked and then moved closer to Patricia and Randall.

“All of you, step this way,” the man said.

And Patricia felt a brief, weightless euphoria as the room disappeared.

*** *** ***

At the street level, humans clogged the walkways despite the efforts of civil officers and robots to direct traffic. They jostled and shoved Colter but he managed to make forward progress.

He felt a tug on his shirt and turned to see a female robot.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

Colter tried to answer, but his programming blocked a response to the question. He stared into her large, blue eyes.

“You can’t pass through the Gauntlet,” she said, blocking his path.

Colter had no response. The word was not in his data banks.

“I know who you are,” the robot whispered. “They’re looking for you. I can help.”

“I must keep moving.”

“Yes, of course you must. But you’ll be intercepted.”

“I must--”

“You must beam with me.”

Colter felt her hands on his data port. He blinked as his buffers automatically prepared for the possibility of a power surge, and braced himself for a moment of disorientation. The ragged-scalped, hazel-eyed male robot staring back at him looked vaguely familiar, but he turned and slipped into the crowd before Colter could name him.

The urge to keep moving was strong, but the melee of pedestrians thickened, impeding his progress as he neared the train platform. His body felt light and quick, but his processors seemed sluggish, as if they were laboring through unfamiliar layers of programming. It wasn’t until he reached the train platform that he realized he was using some of his higher order functions.

It wasn’t until he submitted to the first security scan that he remembered what the Gauntlet was.

And it wasn’t until he cleared the scan and boarded the train that he realized his body proportions had changed.

Colter didn’t have time to examine himself; the passengers packed into the train, sweeping him along in a press of human bodies. The seats were all taken so Colter grabbed a hand bar. His unfamiliar body was squeezed between two men who locked eyes with each other and then gawked at Colter’s chest, grinning at him. He felt a weak response in some of his neural pathways, but the signal was confusing and illogical. He looked down.

He was wearing a blue blouse of soft fabric that crisscrossed between ... breasts.

Colter struggled to find a thread of logic and continuity. He didn't remember being female.

The train was moving slowly, well below its normal speed, and the passengers shouted their frustration. After a few minutes, it lurched to a halt.

“What the --” bellowed one of the men standing next to Colter. “This is no damn place to stop!”

The passengers gasped in unison as the interior lights flickered and died. Colter’s vision tracked a boarding troupe of officers and robots. In the murky darkness, the entourage turned their intimidating search beams on the passengers, scanning human retinas and robotic signatures.

Colter stood very still as a robot confronted him with the beam. A sluggish thought made its way to his consciousness. It tripped a flag, and like a train switching tracks, a safer thought popped up in its place. “I am late for an important function,” he said to the naked-faced robot, shifting his weight so that his hip jutted out at an awkward angle.

“Inconsequential,” The androgynous robot replied and then moved on.

The thought wormed its way up to through layers of Colter’s awareness again. “I must get through the Gauntlet,” he acknowledged. The command had no reference, but it was the number one priority at the moment. He queried his reference banks again. They were not in order. Especially disordered were the ones that identified him as Colter. “On the surface, I am Lyra,” he discovered.

Lyra. The female robot. He queried Lyra's function.

As if to answer, Lyra-on-the-surface smiled at the man next to her. The man stopped cursing and muttering, and straightened his clothes, smiling sheepishly back at her.

“I am Colter underneath,” Colter asserted. Deep inside, Colter observed Lyra and wondered if she was just as confused to be in his body.

*** *** ***

Lyra put a stocking cap over her head. It was Colters head, she reminded herself and its scalp was hideous because Colter had ripped the hair off it so he would be less recognizable. Asimov had given Lyra the cap for this purpose. He'd thought of everything, as usual.

Lyra had to move against the flow of pedestrian traffic. It was slow going. Asimov had warned her about response lag due to the layered programming he’d given her, so she was relieved when, once she'd cleared the crowd, her large, boot-clad feet easily obeyed the commands for long strides. Perhaps Asimov, an enhanced human, could not imagine that a machine like Colter could be so marvelous.

She should not be running, now that she was away from the evacuation area. Running would draw attention to Colter’s body. She slowed to a power-walk. The urge to keep moving drove her hard. Coordinates trickled through her brain alerting her that she was nearing her destination, but they told her nothing about what to expect when she arrived.

Lyra appreciated the heavier and stronger male body. It was liberating to be free of the Lyra exterior. Even though Asimov had purchased her from the pawnshop where she’d been discarded by her former owner, and had refurbished her with new functions, some of the old programs haunted her like ghosts in her circuits.

Now those ghosts mingled with the Colter functions left in place to help her coordinate his body. Lyra remembered how Asimov had laughed as he was programming the dual beam protocol for rescuing Colter. “We can’t have you strutting around and batting your eyelashes in Colter’s body. Perhaps this process will clear those old functions permanently. And you’ll have to be able to manage about thirty kilos more than your accustomed to, Lyra.”

Having bonded so closely with Asimov, Lyra queried the possibility that he would reject her in this new body. Perhaps she’d find herself abandoned in a pawnshop again. And as if Asimov had anticipated this query, the answer came to her.

Her primary purpose was to help Colter get through the Gauntlet to safety. Nothing else mattered.

Lyra considered this. Her loyalty to Asimov surged. Asimov had important work to do and he needed Lyra’s help. There were so few enhanced humans and sentient robots on their side. Asimov had tried to make her understand what was at stake. He’d shown her words and images of war between robot factions to establish dominance. Of contract terrorism used by enhanced humans to control and cull the normal population. “This is the world The Council is slowly and effectively building,” Asimov had told her. “It is a world where nothing will exist that does not serve The Council.”

Lyra could not understand it. But it satisfied her need for purpose. She was made to serve, and this work would serve more humans than the work she did before.

And even now, Asimov was risking his place on The Council, and therefore his life, to intercept Patricia Bedford before harm could come to her because of Colter’s actions.

“You help Colter, and I will help Patricia,” Asimov had told her.

Lyra had so many questions. Why was Colter so important? Why was Patricia in danger? Through the confusing layers of her Colter-Lyra consciousness, she deduced that Colter and Patricia must be valuable in Asimov’s work.

But the most perplexing question still looped around her logic circuits unanswered: did Asimov know that Colter was going to blow up his master’s apartment? How else would he have been prepared with the dual-beam program and the rescue plan?

A flag tripped Lyra’s thoughts. In a human, it would have seemed like a flicker of doubt, but in a robot, it was like a low-grade alarm.

If Asimov could be disloyal to the Council, then he could be disloyal to anyone or anything. If Asimov knew about Colter’s plan, he could have prevented Colter from doing an act that would put himself and Patricia in danger.

Whose side was Asimov on? The alarm persisted. What was Lyra’s purpose? To serve Asimov? Or to serve the humans?

As if doing so would clear the alarm, Lyra ran as fast as Colter’s legs could carry her toward the green space where the coordinates were guiding her.

When a tall, black-skinned woman materialized in front of her, Lyra couldn’t stop. Lyra slammed Colter’s body into the stranger’s and then the world disappeared.


Posted by Kathy at 10:30 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Better All the Time #17

After this weeks festivities in Boston, whether you viewed them as a tremendous renewal of hope for our nation, a massive hot-air-athon, or an unwlecome disruption of your summer re-run viewing, what better wrap-up could there be than a little good news?


- - - - -

Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day I
  1. Lung Cancer Gene Identified
  2. Raising Nicer Rats. And Monkeys. And Children.
  3. Richer All the Time
  4. Frozen Ark
  5. Stem Cell Therapy Even a Mother Could Love
  6. There's Never an Alien Around When You Need One
  7. IP Addresses for Everyone Everything!

    Quote of the Day II

    Update


- - - - -


Quote of the Day I


We've discovered the secret of life.

-- Francis Crick

via BrainyQuote


Top

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Item 1
Lung Cancer Gene Isolated?


The Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium (GELCC) examined 52 families who had at least three first-degree family members affected by lung, throat or laryngeal cancer. Of these 52 families, 36 had affected members in at least two generations. Using 392 known genetic markers, which are DNA sequences that are known to be common sites of genetic variation, the researchers generated and then compared the alleles (the different variations each gene can take) of all affected and non-affected family members who were willing to participate in the study.

The good news:

First off, this is good news because it should provide some additional impetus for some people not to smoke. As the article explains:

Another interesting discovery the team made involved the effects of smoking on cancer risk for carriers and non-carriers of the predicted familial lung cancer gene. They found that in non-carriers, the more they smoked, the greater their risk of cancer. In carriers, on the other hand, any amount of smoking increased lung cancer risk. These findings suggest that smoking even a small amount can lead to cancer for individuals with inherited susceptibility.

Of course...

Many will argue that you would have to be crazy to smoke, anyway. Maybe the knowledge that you carry this gene would be enough to scare a long-time smoker into quitting; maybe not. But you would really have to be crazy to know that you carry this gene and go ahead and start smoking anyway.

Anyway...

This news suggests a possible path to gene therapy treatments that could be used to prevent, maybe one day even cure, lung cancer. Great stuff.

Top

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Item 2
Nature, Nurture, Tomato, Tomahto

Try connecting the dots between the these three pieces of news.

(1) From Tech Central Station

Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you'll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.

Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

(2) From NewScientist.com:

Good mothering can abolish the impact of a "bad" gene for aggression, suggests a new study, adding spice to the "nature-versus-nurture" controversy.

The new work, on rhesus monkeys, backs an earlier study in people which gave the same result.

(3) From Kurzweil AI:

Scientists have discovered that rat genes can be altered by the mother's behavior.

All newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene, they found. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.


The good news:

So it appears that good parenting is as important for monkeys as it is for humans. And if human physiology is similar to that of rats in this regard (which is a leap, of course) it's just possible that kids are better today because we've actually made them...better. Maybe they aren't just making better use of what nature gave them, maybe nature has — through the good offices of their parents — given them a little more to work with than the previous generation had.

Top

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Item 3
The Rich Are Getting Richer, and the Poor Are Getting...Richer!

Without a doubt, there is some connection between economic and technological development. Technological development fuels productivity growth, which in turn drives economic growth. This raises an interesting question: is there an economic version of Moore's Law? How fast is our standard of living increasing? If Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974, is it fair to say that standard of living is doubling every 30 years? And if so, how does that rate of growth compared to what was experienced in years gone by?

The good news:

The article draws a link between increasing economic productivity, technological advancement, and improved standards of living. It seems that these three are related in a very positive way, which keeps pushing all of us towards better and better economic circumstances.

The downside:

As Stephen points out in the comments to the linked entry, although the wealthiest individuals may have vastly more material resources than the poorest, the difference between the two in terms of standard of living is getting smaller and smaller. It's so sad: being super-rich doesn't buy you the same gloating rights it used to.

Boo hoo.

Anyway...

The steady rise in the standard of living over time means most of us, inlcuding some of the poorest among us, richer than kings.

Top

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Item 4
DNA Code Freeze

Britain's "Frozen Ark" project boarded its first endangered passengers on Monday: an Arabian oryx, a Socorro dove, a mountain chicken, a Banggai cardinal, a spotted sea horse, a British field cricket and Polynesian tree snails.

The "ark", a project by three British institutions, doesn't include any living animals, but hopes to collect frozen DNA and tissue specimens from thousands of endangered species.

Like Noah, the scientists harbour hopes of repopulating the Earth.

The good news:

Everybody complains about the loss of biodiversity through man-made extinctions, and now somebody is doing something about it.

The critical assumption:

The ark approach is similar to cryonics, but the aim is to preserve whole species rather than individual organisms. In both cases, it is assumed that the future holds the key to restoring that which we have lost (or in this case, are losing.)

This project assumes that, in the future, we will have the technology to restore these lost species, and to generate new populations of them. It also assumes that we will have — or have the ability to create — a suitable habitat for them. To support a project such as this may involve believing that the present is not all it should be, but one could not possibly get behind such an endeavor without believing that a better future is possible.

Prediction:

Most of us reading this will live to see the restoration of at least one "extinct" species of animal.


Top

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Item 5
Fetuses Give Pregnant Women Stem Cell Therapy

Diana W. Bianchi, M.D. of the Tufts University Sackle School of Graduate Biomedical Research has found that cells from fetuses during pregnancy cross over into mothers and become a large assortment of types of specialized cells in the mothers and persist for years.

The good news:

This good news on a couple of fronts. First, it suggests a heretorfore unimagined health benefit associated with motherhood. What could be more deserved than that? Perhaps even more importantly, it suggests that we may have found a new source of fetal and embryonic stem cells, one that may be free of the controversey which has surrounded stem cell research up to this point.

As Randall Parker explains it:

My guess is that a large fraction of the hESC research opponents will decide that extraction of hESC from a mother's blood is morally acceptable. No fetus will be killed by the extraction. The cells so extracted are not cells that would go on to become a complete new human life. If a sizable portion of the religious hESC opponents can be satisfied by this approach for acquiring hESC then Bianchi's research may well lead to a method to get hESC that will open the gates to a much larger effort to develop therapies based on hESC.

On thing is for sure...

It will prove a lot easier to "win" the stem cell debate by coming up with a solution that both sides like than it would have been to get one side to agree that we should walk away, or the other side to agree that it's okay to kill an embryo. There's a lot to be said for the win-win scenario.


Top

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Item 6
Close Encounter Soon?

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute is predicting "First Contact" with an alien civilization within a generation. To be specific the prediction is:

If intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, advances in computer processing power and radio telescope technology will ensure we detect their transmissions within two decades.

The good news:

If there's anybody out there, and these calculations based on the Drake Equation are correct, we should know about it in a fairly short period of time (relatively speaking. And if there isn't anyone out there, we will be more sure of that if we haven't heard anything within the next 20 years or so.

The downside:

The problem with Drake's equation (which Drake would certainly acknowledge) is that all variables are unknown. We can make educated guesses, but we can't know with any degree of certainty as long as our sample size for known civilizations is one.

Anyway...

Drake's equation has always been better for providing a framework for speculation than for proving anything. But Shostak has expanded Drakes' framework and has given SETI a goal.

Top

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Item 7
The Gift of Understatement

Paul Hsieh on the new version six of the Internet Protocol:

The new IPv6 internet naming and number protocol will make it possible for every person (or device) on Earth to have their own IP address.

The Good News:

Every person or device on Earth? Well, er, yeah...and then some. The linked article repeats the same modest claim before getting to heart of the matter:

Vinton Cerf of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) said the next-generation protocol, IPv6, had been added to its root server systems, making it possible for every person or device to have an Internet protocol address.

Cerf said about two-thirds of the 4.3 billion Internet addresses currently available were used up, adding that IPv6 could magnify capacity by some "25,000 trillion trillion times."

The Good News Amplified:

Our friend Alex Lightman gave a talk a while back that touched on a number of interesting topics, one of which was the introduction of IPv6. He estimates that IPv6 will provide enough IP addresses so that every atom in the known universe can have one.

Now that oughta hold us for a while.

Top

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Quote of the Day II

Watching science catch up to science fiction. Portable computers, Star Trek communicators, all that stuff has actually happened and there’s more on the way.

-- Major Robert Blackington, USAF, on what's best about living in the future.


Top


- - - - -

UPDATE
It's Official

SpaceShipOne will fly September 29, 2004, making the first of its two qualifying flights required to win the X Prize.

We'll be there. (Virtually, of course.)

Top

- - - - -


For more good stuff, don't miss the latest Winds of Discovery.

Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster, Stephen Gordon, Kathy Hanson, and Michael "El Jefe Grande" Sargent. Live to see it!

Posted by Phil at 08:45 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 29, 2004

Francis Crick has Died

Dr. Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of the double-helix structure of DNA, has died at age 88.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 28, 2004

Still Number One!

For the past 10 months, Stillness has been the blogosphere's number one serialized novel of mystery, intrigue and suspense.

Here's what some of the readers are saying:

Ooh, I got a little shiver...

A week is too long to have to wait!

Terribly engaging story. Congrats.

I've never had all that much patience for serial stories (as they were being released, anyway). But I look forward to each new chapter of Stillness.

Reminds me...of John LeCarre.

More? Please?

Holy smokes, it's John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, and Douglas Adams rolled into one!

Awesome. Just awesome. You rock, Phil.

No, you rock, readers. Thanks for making Stillness number one. And for those of you who haven't yet joined the party, here's your big chance...


Stillness

by Philip Bowermaster

Part I

Chapter 1, in which Reuben sees lights.

Chapter 2, in which Sergei gives advice.

Chapter 3, in which Ksenia looks at cars.

Chapter 4, in which Reuben falls.

Chapter 5, in which Reuben contends.

Chapter 6, in which Reuben recovers.

Chapter 7, in which Sergei explains some things.

Chapter 8, in which Betty explains the rest.

Chapter 9, in which Father Alexy saves the day.

Chapter 10, in which the old man speaks.

Chapter 11, in which Reuben obliges.

Part II

Chapter 12, in which Emmett goes to work.

Chapter 13, in which Frank has some news.

Chapter 14, in which Peggy opens a box.

Chapter 15, in which Emmett becomes confused.

Chapter 16, in which Rick spells things out.

Chapter 17, in which two strangers arrive.

Part III

Chapter 18, in which Celia meets Corey.

Chapter 19, in which Grace wins a game.

Chapter 20, in which Celia remembers.

Chapter 21, in which Corey wishes.

Chapter 22, in which Todd hugs back.

Chapter 23, in which an argument is settled.

Chapter 24, in which Estelle calls for help.

Chapter 25, in which Grace gets an idea.

Chapter 26, in which Corey awakens.

Part IV

Chapter 27, in which Reuben goes forth.

Chapter 28, in which Reuben gets lost.

Chapter 29, in which Hamilton lends his coat.

Chapter 30, in which Reuben plays a new game.

Chapter 31, in which Markku takes a turn.

Chapter 32, in which Sergei has some questions.

Chapter 33, in which Reuben reconsiders his past.

Chapter 34, in which Iskandar deals some cards.

Chapter 35, in which magic is discussed.

Chapter 36, in which Daphne sets terms.

Chapter 37, in which Altheus issues a warning.

Chapter 38, in which Reuben reads the stones.

Chapter 39, in which Reuben has three telephone conversations.

Chapter 40, in which Reuben and Daphne take a stroll.

Chapter 41, in which Reuben and Daphne have a drink.

Chapter 42, in which Michel blows smoke.

Chapter 43, in which Reuben discusses chess.

Posted by Phil at 07:32 PM | TrackBack

Stillness, Chapter 43

Part IV

Chapter 43

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

It was a bit past two when we reached my shop. Reuben looked tired and discouraged.

As well he might be.

We departed Michel’s company about half way back from the town with the incomplete tower. Our paths branched at that point; I could make out a quicker route home than returning to his world. To tell you the truth, I kept seeing better approaches to where Monsieur was taking us throughout the morning. I would have had us there in half the time, sparing Reuben a fair amount of wear and tear.

But it isn’t good form to second-guess one’s navigator. Moreover, the Congrigatio being a concern which values and honors tradition above all, it is considered especially impudent to question the technique of one’s elders. And it doesn’t do to allow Michel to work himself into a snit. We had come dangerously close to that more than once as it was. It doesn’t help that he is rather a thin-skinned creature who thinks nothing of becoming enraged at the drop of un chapeau. Moreover, it was a classic confrontation: Michel’s refinement versus Reuben’s abruptness; the Frenchman’s arrogance versus the American’s puppy-dog sincerity.

To be honest, they both get on my nerves. Rather.

In any event, inasmuch as Michel has both the gift of seeing and that of disrupting the waveform — although he is less a talent than myself in the former area, and far less than Reuben in the latter — we went our separate ways, with his assurance that he would have no trouble getting home. It was only after we started back on our own that I began to wonder whether his self-confidence was entirely justified. Not that there was anything to be done about it. Even if I had serious second thoughts about sending him back on his own — as distinct from a few partially formed misgivings — it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for us to find him after a step or two separated us. We would probably have had to go all the way back to his world to make sure he arrived safely. Which, owing to the aforementioned differences in technique, would probably have involved our arriving well ahead of him and waiting for him to catch up. Then even if we had somehow managed to intercept him on the way back, I would have once again risked being branded an upstart.

Plus I would have been practically begging him to throw one of his darling little French Fits. On balance, it didn’t seem worth it, especially after that touching farewell.

Oh, yes, it was touching. Decidedly so. We said not adieu, but au revoir.

“Come back when you can stay longer,” Michel had said. “I would so love to have you both here for the Moon Cake festival.”

Apparently he forgot that we have the same festival in my context and, more to the point, that I have always despised moon cake. The moon cake is a disgusting, heavy, syrup-drenched confection with an egg-yolk in the middle. Yes, that’s the delightful yummy surprise found inside. An egg yolk.

However, not only do I now engage in even more impudence concerning fine old traditions (these being the traditions not of my Order, but of my People), I do it by way of a pointless digression. So to return to the point: I suppose it was the thought that counted, after all.

“You must find your way back to my shop one day,” I had said. “We’ll hire a car and drive to Singapore.”

Of course, his world also has a Singapore, but it is not much to speak of — smaller even than my own Malacca.

So we carried on this vein for a while, like old school chums who had happened upon each other in a marketplace and had a cup of coffee together. The fact that our days of wandering through the configuration space were probably over, that it was likely that the configuration space itself would soon be over, just didn’t come up. Michel and Reuben shook hands solemnly and wished each other luck. We all put as brave a face as we could on the circumstances with which we would soon be overwhelmed and which we were powerless to change.

What a farce.

Even so, I found myself dangerously close to tearing up as Michel kissed my cheeks. And unless I’m mistaken, when he sniffed as he turned to go, it indicated — for once — something other than disdain.

I opened the door and led Reuben into my office, where he and I had spoken that first day some weeks before. I told him to sit down. I went to the kitchen and got a pitcher of water and two glasses. Reuben drank greedily. He had downed three glasses while I was sipping my first. Quite understandable, really: a man of his size, still not fully acclimated, and required to do most of the heavy lifting.

“So,” he said with a sigh, putting his glass down on my desk, “I see now why you told me that I shouldn’t have said anything specific at the hotel. They’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“I’m sure they already do,” I said.

He half-smiled.

“Very likely. But I’m talking about how long I said I would be gone. I guess it wasn’t any two months, after all.”

“No, Reuben. It hasn’t been two months. It’s been quite a bit longer than that, I’m afraid.”

He looked puzzled.

“What, are you kidding? We haven’t even been gone 24 hours.”

“Reuben, have you ever been on a flight in which you travel across several time zones and arrive before you left?”

He nodded.

“Or have you ever crossed the date line and had a whole day added to your travel time, even though — for you — there was no such day?”

He nodded again.

“Well, let’s just say that there are a goodly number of time zones and date lines out there in the configuration space.”

“So, how long were we gone?”

“It was a little more than 18 months, I’m afraid.”

Reuben looked shocked. He closed his eyes and rubbed his head for a moment.

I knew this would be disorienting news. It didn’t make it worse by telling him that we would have been gone for a much shorter time had Michel not taken such a round-about route.

A long moment passed, and he still said nothing.

“Reuben, are you all right?”

He opened his eyes.

“I’m fine. But 18 months. How do you know?”

I handed him the copy of the Straits Times which Wai Hoong had set on my desk that morning, just as he had done every day during the year and a half I was gone. He followed instructions very well, Wai Hoong, And had never been one to ask nosey questions. He was used to the fact that I was prone to disappear for long periods of time, during which I was completely incommunicado. And that I would unexpectedly reappear as mysteriously as I had vanished, often in something of a bad mood.

Later, I would have the chance to look through the books and see how the shop had done in my absence. I suspected that business would be up a little.

Wai Hoong was also an excellent salesman.

Reuben looked at the date on the paper, and then dropped it back on my desk.

“Thanks for the water, Miss Wong,” he said, pushing his chair back. “ I need to go make a few calls.”

He stood to go, and then went wobbly. He planted his hand on my desk to steady himself.

“Sit down, Reuben. You need to rest for a while.”

He swayed indecisively.

“I need to make a couple of calls,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “Betty will be worried about you.”

He plopped back down in his chair.

“I meant to talk to you about that. Who the hell do you think you are, extorting money from the Keyes like that?”

I shook my head.

“I extorted nothing. I needed some money, and Mr. Keyes was more than happy to help. He’s a very generous man, Reuben. Perhaps you could learn something from him.”

“You don’t think I was generous, forking over a million dollars with no questions asked?”

I wheeled around the chair and opened the cabinet behind me.

“It’s not the amount, Reuben,” I said over my shoulder. “It’s the attitude. Mr. Keyes never made an issue out of how many questions were asked. He gives with no strings attached. That’s generosity.”

I turned back around, holding a bottle and two glasses.

“Well, then you’re right,” said Reuben. “I’ll never be as generous as the old man. I’ve got plenty of questions, and I intend to ask them.”

I opened the bottle and poured a generous helping into each. It occurred to me that, as reliable as Wai Hoong was, it was unlikely that he had wiped down these tumblers during my absence. Oh, well. The alcohol was sure to neutralize anything truly nasty.

“As I’ve told you more than once, I have no intention of satisfying your curiosity about what I intend to do with what is now my money.”

I offered him one of the glasses. He looked warily at it.

“Do you really think more booze is a good idea?”

I nodded.

“Almost always. Isn’t this what you would call a hair from the dog who bit you?

He shrugged and took the glass.

“Something like that,” he said.

“Anyway,” I continued, “This is one of the finest single-malt whiskies available on Earth. Please do not refer to it as ‘booze.’”

He smiled and took a sip.

“Sorry, Miss Wong. You’re right. It’s excellent. Another gift from Iskandar?”

It was an infuriating question. All the more so because the whisky was, indeed, a gift from Ix.

“Why would you think that?” I asked, as nonchalantly as I could.

“Just a shot in the dark. I’ve known some Indonesian guys to be pretty partial to their whisky.”

I took a sip myself. The familiar glow of warmth was reassuring. It was good to be back in this chair, in this room. It was even good to be talking about Ix, good-for-nothing heartbreaking tosser though he was.

Or had I broken his heart? It was all so long ago.

But none of that mattered any more. Nor did it matter what Reuben knew, or thought he knew, about what had passed between us.

“Even though, technically, it’s against their religion,” he continued.

“Oh, Mr. Ahmad does not drink. His appreciation of fine whisky is purely intellectual.”

“So you’re saying that the gift was from him?”

I felt a sudden chill of anger. Perhaps none of it mattered any more, but that was no excuse for baiting me. I’m accused of being overly sensitive when it comes to my personal life, but here was more proof that I’m right to keep everything to myself. They’re all the same. All of them.

So cruel.

“Don’t be pedantic, Reuben. You’ve made your point.”

He took another drink and looked at me for a moment.

“Can I tell you something, Miss Wong?”

“What is it?” I asked.

Here, no doubt, would come the final blow. And he would have a fine laugh at my expense. I braced myself for some crude attempted witticism offered up at my expense, and began to formulate my response.

“Well pardon my saying so, but I think it’s too bad that the two of you couldn’t work out your differences. Too bad for him, I mean.”

He looked down at his glass and then back up at me.

“I think Iskandar would have done all right for himself if he had been willing to bow down to the altar of Daphne almighty.”

He took another drink

“I think any guy would.”

I opened my mouth, but found I was incapable of speech. My mouth was dry; my throat, too. My voice would surely crack if I tried to say anything. I looked down at my glass and realized it was empty. I started to pour myself some more. My hands were trembling.

I poured out a splash and drank it.

“I…well…thank you, Reuben,” I managed. “That’s very sweet of you to say.”

He shrugged again.

“It’s just the simple truth,” he said.

I found that I was smiling like some schoolgirl whose head can be turned with silly flattery. I damned myself for an idiot. But I didn’t stop smiling. Besides, I knew this wasn’t silliness. Nor was it flattery. Overbearing simpleton of an American though he might be, Reuben wasn’t the sort who could say something like that convincingly if he didn’t mean it. In fact, he wasn’t the sort ever to say anything he didn’t mean.

He could be quite infuriating, really. Especially at a moment like this, when it became quite apparent that — all my plans and intentions aside — I would no longer be able to hate him.

“Anyway,” he continued, “the question I wanted to ask you wasn’t about what you’re going to do with the money. Sorry, your money. Or about you and Iskandar. I don’t care about any of that. I’m more interested in something else.”

“Which is?”

“What are we going to do next?”

I blinked.

“Reuben, don’t you understand? There is no more we. We have finished with each other. It’s over. I suggest you go back to Italy and wallow in the lap of luxury for as long as you can.”

“So, we’re just giving up?”

I looked at him for a moment. Clearly, there was more spinning around in that damaged head of his than wistful reflections on my failed romances.

Which came as a bit of a relief.

“Is there an alternative?”

“Well, there was yesterday. Or last year. Or whenever the hell it was that we left. You told me that what’s happening isn’t natural. It’s not what was supposed to happen. And you think those things…the shredders are behind it somehow.”

Shedders.

“Right. Shedders. What a stupid name. You think the Shedders are behind all this.”

I nodded.

“Yes, that’s my suspicion.”

“Well, based on what he had to say the other night, it’s Michel’s suspicion, too.”

“I suppose it is. So?”

“So you said you could identify the source of the anomalies; that we could go there and maybe stop them.”

I sighed, and contemplated another wee sip, before realizing that such contemplation is out of order when the universe is ending.

I filled my glass almost to the top.

“Even if it were possible to get there, which we now know it is not, it wasn’t much of plan. Stop whom? From doing what? I was hoping Michel would be able to guide us to others who could help answer those questions. I believed that we were in the early stages of forming a plan. But there is no plan to be formed, Reuben, because we can’t get there.

Reuben didn’t really seem to be listening to what I said. He looked up at me after a moment.

“Miss Wong, how far can you see?”

I shook my head.

“That question would be almost impossible for me to answer.”

“Fine. But the point is that you can’t see every context that we would have to pass through in order to get to the source of the anomalies.”

“No. I doesn’t work like that.”

“So then, unless we go take a look, how do we know that we can’t get there?”

I took another drink.

“You saw what I saw, Reuben. Do you really think we have a chance of making our way through there?”

“I saw a few weird birds, a guy with hair that was a little too thick and wavy, and a tower that holds itself up in the sky with no visible means of support. How does that mean we can’t make it to the source of the anomalies?”

I could understand his resistance, his willingness to do something. And there was some part of me that wanted to agree with him. But I wasn’t quite ready.

“Reuben, remember what Michel told us. As they lose coherence, the contexts become more and more unpredictable. We’ll stumble into danger without realizing it.”

He thought about this for a moment.

“Do you think that’s why LeClaire was leading us on that wild goose chase? He was protecting us from danger?”

“If that’s what he said he was doing…what are you talking about, Reuben? What do you mean by a wild goose chase?”

“I mean that we didn’t take the most direct route to where we were going.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“I — I don’t know.”

I stared at him for a moment. He was a now a completely new person. A stranger.

“My God. Reuben. You can see, can’t you?”

He finished his drink and set the glass back on my desk.

“I…yes, I think maybe I can.”

It’s hard to describe the rush of excitement I felt. Of the two gifts which enable the practice of Magic Minor, the ability to disrupt the waveform is by far the more common. There are those who believe that every human being possesses the talent, at least to some extent. It’s built into the brain. Few have the ability in sufficient quantity ever to become aware of it, and fewer still have enough of it to be trained to venture out into the configuration space.

But the ability to see — to perceive the makeup of adjacent contexts, to navigate a course from one reality to another — is, I will say in all modesty, vanishingly rare. It is believed that even Jaloor lacked the ability to see, that he stumbled into this world as blindly as Reuben did. Until that moment, Michel was the only human being I had ever met who possessed both talents.

“Tell me what you saw,” I said, breathlessly. “Tell me how you knew that Michel was not taking the most direct route.”

He shook his head.

“It’s very hard to describe.”

Try.

“Do you play chess, Miss Wong?”

I shook my head.

“No, but I have played. Anyway, I understand the rules of the game.”

“Well, whenever I play, I try to look ahead one or two moves. If I take the other guy’s bishop, he’ll take my pawn. Then I just slide my rook into place, and he’ll never see the attack on his queen until its too late. But he might not take the pawn. Maybe he’s going to continue an assault with his knight, in which case I need to move my bishop back into a position that shows I mean business.”

Reuben closed his eyes, apparently picturing a chessboard with his mind.

“That’s about as far as I can ever take it. I can see two or three alternative sets of moves, and that’s it. It quickly branches out into more possibilities than I can take in our keep track of. But even so, I have a sort of master idea of which moves I need to make in order to get the other guy’s king.”

He opened his eyes.

“Miss Wong, I was experiencing something like that on the walk this morning. Each time we took a step, I had an idea of what some of the possible steps from the new position might be. And each time Michel stated an objective, I had a… a vague idea of how we needed to proceed to get there. It’s just that the steps that he took didn’t always match up with my picture of how to get there.”

It was a perfect description of what I had experienced on our journey that morning.

“But that’s only to be expected,” I said. “There are differences in style, Reuben. And differences in technique. Most importantly, there are differences in innate ability. If you and I were given a chess board in mid-game, would you expect us to choose the same next move?”

“No.”

“Well, there you are.”

“Maybe I’m wrong. I could watch somebody make moves different from my own, moves that reflect a different strategy or a different approach to the game, and I’d be fine. But there was something else at work. The more I think about it, the more sure I am. There was something phony about the way he got us to our destination.”

I felt a twinge of unease.

“Phony?” I repeated.

“I don’t know. All I know is that we could have gotten to the broken tower without seeing the ugly little medusa guy. And I think we could have walked as far as we did, or even a lot farther, and still arrived at a perfectly coherent destination.”

There it was: the suspicion that, until that moment, I hadn’t even realized was a suspicion. There was something disturbing about the path that Michel had chosen for us. I had sensed that all along.

And it was not just a difference in technique.

“Reuben, what are you saying?”

“How long have you known LeClaire?”

I shook my head, bewildered.

“For a long time. I’ve seen him six or seven times over the years.”

I remembered the first time the Frenchman came to our house. I was only three or four years old. Michel couldn’t have been more than 15. He had come looking for help; the elder members of his order had all died out. He didn’t know what to do. My father was amazed that he had managed to find his way to us. We took him in for a few weeks, during which time my father taught him as much as he could about the Congrigatio.

Of course, I only learned about all that years later. At the time, all I knew was that — for some strange reason — a gweilo boy was staying with us. I was terrified of Michel, and fascinated by him. My mother tells me that I watched him and followed him, from a safe distance, the entire time he was with us. He was always smiling, always kind.

He was my oldest friend in the world.

“And this Situation that you guys have been tracking,” Reuben continued, “he’s always been interested in doing something about it?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Well, don’t you think it’s a little odd that he has suddenly reversed himself? Isn’t it strange that a guy who has spent years preparing to do something about it just up and quits?”

I started to become annoyed in spite of myself.

“Reuben, you heard what he told us.”

“Yes, I heard it.”

He slid his chair back and stood up. He was steadier on his feet now. He looked around my office, as though seeing it for the first time. Then he looked back at me.

“All these years, Miss Wong. You’ve known what needed to be done. Why didn’t you go ahead and do something about it? Why didn’t you go, on your own?”

“I’ve told you that. I am unable to disrupt the waveform reliably.”

“Reliably? Or at all?”

“Reliably.”

“All right, you can’t disrupt the waveform reliably. Michel can. Why didn’t the two of you go together?”

I remembered the three times I made the journey to Michel’s context to suggest that very thing. Each time, I was warmly received. Each time, Michel confirmed my sense of urgency.

And each time, he sent me away, persuaded that we would do something soon.

“That’s hard to explain,” I said. “I’ve always felt that we should, but Michel has consistently urged caution. It’s such a long trip, far outside the scope of anything we’ve ever done. Michel could see that someone was going to come along in my context with a greater ability to disrupt the waveform than either he or I have. He said we should wait until that person arrives and then set out for the source of the anomalies.”

“Wait. How could he know that?”

“He can see more steps ahead than you can, Reuben. And more than I can, too.”

“So you didn’t think you could manage the trip on your own. And you didn’t bother to go out into the configuration space looking for help, because you knew help was coming.”

Reuben stood himself behind the chair where he had been sitting.

“This guy has been using you, Miss Wong. He’s been taking you for a ride. First your father, and now you. I think he must be in with those Shedders. They caused the anomalies. They’re trying to destroy the universe. And here’s their buddy Michel making sure that you don’t do anything about it.”

It could not be.

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it? Here’s what’s ridiculous — a secret society exists for hundreds of years, waiting for some big cosmic event to happen. Nobody expects it’s ever actually going to happen, it seems, but they like the idea of it — it gives everybody something to speculate about and it creates this sort of air of purpose.”

I didn’t want to hear it. It could not be.

“And then, one day: wham! What do you know? The Thing actually starts happening. So what does the ancient secret society do? Do they sound the alarm? Do they put on their funny hats? Do they unroll their scroll and start chanting?

“No. They decide to sit it out. Their One Big Chance to do whatever the hell it is they think they’re going to do, and they decide to do nothing.

“Now that is ridiculous, Miss Wong. Daphne. It’s absurd.”

It could not — oh, what was the point?

I found that I couldn’t argue with Reuben, even in his impudence. Everything he said fit together. It all made sense.

He was right. Reuben: the tough guy. The imbecile. The git.

Was right.

It made me so angry that I wanted to hit something. Only the memory of the nice moment we had shared a few minutes earlier prevented me from throwing a right French Fit of my own. Only then did it occur to me that anger aimed at Reuben would be poorly placed.

Granted, he had shown up and proven to be someone other than the man I was expecting. That was probably his worst offense. Next he had humiliated me by getting me to spill the beans about Iskandar — a subject I never discuss with anyone. Ever. And now he, Reuben Stone, of all people, had seen a deception perpetrated against me.

Yes, Reuben was a pain in the arse.

But Michel…

Somehow, he had given the whole matter of the end of the world a personal side that it had previously lacked. After all, it wasn’t as though the Shedders (if they were, in fact, somehow behind all this) had it in for me personally. Monsieur, on the other hand, had come to my home. Lied to me.

Lied to my father. For years.

And I had missed it.

Well, there was nothing to be done about it. For now.

“Let’s finish our drinks, Reuben. We have to prepare for another long trip.”

He nodded.

“Sounds good. Where are we going?”

“As you suggested. We’re going to trace the source of the anomalies, and see what we can do about them.”

“So we’ll be taking another walk?”

“Yes. But not here. Our journey will take us through a completely different city.”

“Where?”

“Someplace you know very well.”

Posted by Phil at 07:32 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

It's Official

SpaceShipOne will fly September 29, 2004, making the first of its two qualifying flights required to win the X Prize.

We'll be there. (Virtually, of course.)

Posted by Phil at 02:25 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 27, 2004

Seven Questions with Major Robert Blackington, USAF

El Jefe Grande submits another in his infrequent but interesting dispatches, this time from somewhere in southeastern Colorado.

Recently I had the pleasure of lunch and a brief interview with Major Robert Blackington of the United States Air Force Space Warfare Center’s Space Battlelab. Major Blackington (who came to my attention by name via an article on MSNBC.com titled: “Airship groomed for flight to edge of space” – 21 May, 2004 by Alan Boyle) is the Battlelab’s program manager for its Near Space Maneuvering Vehicle (NSMV) initiative This initiative is aimed at examining the possible use of lighter-than-air craft (aerostats or airships, commonly known as blimps, dirigibles, and zeppelins), at altitudes above those commonly used by conventional (aerodynamic) aircraft, to answer some of the needs of air, sea, and ground commanders for what is termed “responsive spacelift” or the ability to place payloads, particularly sensors, in locations of advantage, beyond an opponent’s reach and / or having a superior field of view. Practically speaking, the Battlelab is working with John Powell and his associates at JP Aerospace on demonstrating that their “Ascender” ‘v-airship’ can “reach an altitude of 120,000 ft. with a 100 lb. payload, navigate 200 NM, loiter for 5 days, and safely return.”

Holder of a Master’s Degree in Economics from Rutgers University, Major Blackington’s 19-year Air Force career has covered each of the primary missions the service has tackled over time, from “steel-on-target” air-to-ground operations in the AC-130 gunship, to Special Operations transportation, aerial refueling, and logistics in the MC-130 “Combat Talon”, to Information Operations (which, the good Major has taught me, is a collective discipline encompassing such concepts as; computer network attack and defense [CAN/CND, what might be referred to in less serious circles as ‘cyberwarfare’] electronic warfare, psychological operations, military deception, operations security, physical attack, public affairs, and civil affairs.) [1] , to his current work developing space (and “near-space”) hardware and doctrine.

Given his breadth of experience and his current assignment, I found it unsurprising that he is, overall, optimistic about the future as you may see in his responses to the Speculist’s traditional Seven Questions:

The present is the future relative to the past. What’s the best thing about living in the future?

“Watching science catch up to science fiction. Portable computers, Star Trek communicators, all that stuff has actually happened and there’s more on the way.”

What’s the biggest disappointment?

"When I was flying C-130’s, the back of one of our squadron challenge coins (Illustration [Click on the 16SOS link under "Squadrons"]) was inscribed: “Only the dead have seen the end of war. Unfortunately, I think that that is still true.”

Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

“In fifty-some years? It’s possible that nanotechnology might make the reasons behind that inscription; poverty, jealousy, etc. obsolete.”

What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

“After having a chance to work on the “Ascender” project, I really think that there is a good chance that airships may undergo a renaissance in the near future. Under certain circumstances they could do some of the same jobs as rockets and satellites, less expensively and more responsively.”

What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

“A downside of science fiction becoming reality is that more powerful weapons of mass destruction are becoming more available to small groups and individuals. I don’t know what we have to do to deal with that possibility.”

Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

“Without a certain amount of ‘push’ from people who know something about their capabilities the Airship Renaissance I mentioned might not come about. I’d like to be part of that ‘push’.”

“Part of that ‘push’ is investigating the ways in which a technology can contribute to accomplishing our missions. Those contributions and the procedures to apply them, become the foundation of the ‘doctrine’ surrounding the new technology.”

“As you enter the Battlelab, there is an inscription on the wall that points out the importance of developing doctrine instead of just randomly grabbing at technologies.” (I’ve reproduced the quotation that the Major refers to, and a bit of the context below. – Auth.)

“National safety would be endangered by an Air Force whose doctrines and techniques are tied solely on the equipment and process of the moment. Present equipment is but a stop in progress, and . . .

 

[A]ny Air Force which does not keep its doctrine ahead of its equipment, and its vision far into the future, can only delude the nation into a false sense of security.”

 

– General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, 1945 [2]

“A good example from our work with the ‘Ascender’ is the development of the concept of “Near Space.” When we were evaluating the unique capabilities that ‘Ascender’, ‘Dark Sky Station’ and similar technologies brought to the table, we established that there was a regime, lower and slower than the lowest sustainable orbit (about 100 kilometers and 17,000 mph – Auth.) but above controlled airspaces (about 60,000 feet, 18.288 km – Auth.) where a geographically stable, persistent platform carrying sensors, communications or other payloads might be desirable and that ultra-high altitude airships and derivative technologies would give us the ability to exploit that regime in unique ways and / or less expensively and more responsively than competing technologies.”

Why is it that in the year 2004 I still don’t have a flying car? When do you think I’ll be able to get one?

“A flying car is not yet economically viable. There are too many costs associated with the technology; development, establishing safety and operation regulations and controlling risks. If those costs can be overcome, then it might be possible if there is enough demand.”



[1]  [See for example the Major’s Air Command and Staff College thesis:  Air Force Information Operations (IO) Doctrine: Consistent with Joint IO Doctrine? (Abstract)]

 

[2] As quoted in AIR FORCE DOCTRINE PROBLEMS by Dr. James A. Mowbray at page 4, citing Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, vol. 1, 1907-1960 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1989), 180.

 

Posted by Michael S. Sargent at 09:49 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Frozen Ark

This is an excellent idea:

Britain's "Frozen Ark" project boarded its first endangered passengers on Monday: an Arabian oryx, a Socorro dove, a mountain chicken, a Banggai cardinal, a spotted sea horse, a British field cricket and Polynesian tree snails.

The "ark", a project by three British institutions, doesn't include any living animals, but hopes to collect frozen DNA and tissue specimens from thousands of endangered species.

Like Noah, the scientists harbour hopes of repopulating the Earth.

This approach is similar to cryonics, but the aim is to preserve whole species rather than individual organisms. In both cases, it is assumed that the future holds the key to restoring that which we have lost (or in this case, are losing.)

This project assumes that, in the future, we will have the technology to restore these lost species, and to generate new populations of them. It also assumes that we will have — or have the ability to create — a suitable habitat for them. To support a project such as this may involve believing that the present is not all it should be, but one could not possibly get behind such an endeavor without believing that a better future is possible.

Prediction:

Most of us reading this will live to see the restoration of at least one "extinct" species of animal.

(via Kurzweil AI)

Posted by Phil at 04:08 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Lung Cancer Gene?

Researchers may have isolated (or may be close to isolating) the gene that determines susceptibility to lung cancer:

The Genetic Epidemiology of Lung Cancer Consortium (GELCC) examined 52 families who had at least three first-degree family members affected by lung, throat or laryngeal cancer. Of these 52 families, 36 had affected members in at least two generations. Using 392 known genetic markers, which are DNA sequences that are known to be common sites of genetic variation, the researchers generated and then compared the alleles (the different variations each gene can take) of all affected and non-affected family members who were willing to participate in the study.

First off, this is good news because it should provide some additional impetus for some people not to smoke. As the article explains:

Another interesting discovery the team made involved the effects of smoking on cancer risk for carriers and non-carriers of the predicted familial lung cancer gene. They found that in non-carriers, the more they smoked, the greater their risk of cancer. In carriers, on the other hand, any amount of smoking increased lung cancer risk. These findings suggest that smoking even a small amount can lead to cancer for individuals with inherited susceptibility.

Sure, many will argue that you would have to be crazy to smoke, anyway. Maybe the knowledge that you carry this gene would be enough to scare a long-time smoker into quitting; maybe not. But you would really have to be crazy to know that you carry this gene and go ahead and start smoking anyway.

Additionally, this news suggests a possible path to gene therapy treatments that could be used to prevent, maybe one day even cure, lung cancer. Great stuff.

Hat tip: M104 member and co-blogger Kathy Hanson

Posted by Phil at 03:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #144

In the Future...

...the market for almost-historical artifacts and souvenirs for tourists from alternate universes will be considerably larger.


(via InstaPundit)

Posted by Phil at 10:32 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 26, 2004

Moore Meets Drake

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute is predicting "First Contact" with an alien civilization within a generation. To be specific the prediction is:

If intelligent life exists elsewhere in our galaxy, advances in computer processing power and radio telescope technology will ensure we detect their transmissions within two decades.

Shostak came to his conclusion by taking assumptions about alien civilizations already adopted by SETI to determine how long it will take us to find the first civilization with accelerating technology.

This brings together two ideas near and dear to the Speculist heart: Drake's Equation, and Moore's Law.

Drake's Equation was developed by Dr. Frank Drake to estimate the number of communicating civilizations in the galaxy. It is:

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L
Where,

N = The number of communicative civilizations

The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose radio emissions are detectable.

R* = The rate of formation of suitable stars

The rate of formation of stars with a large enough "habitable zone" and long enough lifetime to be suitable for the development of intelligent life.

Fp = The fraction of those stars with planets

The fraction of sun-like stars with planets is currently unknown, but evidence indicates that planetary systems may be common for stars like the sun.

ne = The number of "Earths" per planetary system

All stars have a habitable zone where a planet would be able to maintain a temperature that would allow liquid water. A planet in the habitable zone could have the basic conditions for life as we know it.

fl = The fraction of those planets where life develops

Although a planet orbits in the habitable zone of a suitable star, other factors are necessary for life to arise. Thus, only a fraction of suitable planets will actually develop life.

fi = The fraction life sites where intelligence develops

Life on Earth began over 3.5 billion years ago. Intelligence took a long time to develop. On other life-bearing planets it may happen faster, it may take longer, or it may not develop at all. For more information, please visit Dr. William Calvin's "The Drake Equation's fi".

fc = The fraction of planets where technology develops

The fraction of planets with intelligent life that develop technological civilizations, i.e., technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.

L = The "Lifetime" of communicating civilizations

The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

The problem with Drake's equation (which Drake would certainly acknowledge) is that all variables are unknown. We can make educated guesses, but we can't know with any degree of certainty as long as our sample size for known civilizations is one.

Nevertheless, in attempting to maximize the chances of finding an extra terrestrial civilization, SETI has made some assumptions. Shostak took those assumptions and found that between 10,000 and one million radio transmitting civilizations should exist in this galaxy.

We have a lot of territory to search - there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Fortunately, for purposes of the search, many stars can be excluded from the survey as being outside of the Galactic Habitable Zone.

Shostak also took into account existing and planned radio telescopes and our improving ability to analyze these signals with computers.

Shostak assumed that computer processing power will continue to double every 18 months until 2015 as it has done for the past 40 years. From then on, he assumes a more conservative doubling time of 36 months as transistors get too small to scale down as easily as they have till now.

Within a generation, radio emissions from enough stars will be observed and analysed to find the first alien civilisation, Shostak estimates.

There are naysayers:

Paul Shuch, executive director of the SETI League, a separate organisation in New Jersey, says Shostak's prediction ignores one important factor. "It is altogether reasonable to project the development of human technology, based upon past trends and planned investments," he says.

"But predicting the date, the decade or even the century of contact is another matter because the 'other end' of the communications link is completely out of our hands. It would be nice to think we know something about the existence, distribution, technology and motivation of our potential communications partners in space, but in fact, we don't."

Shuch is right that we don't have any knowledge about alien civilizations. Drake's equation has always been better for providing a framework for speculation than for proving anything. But Shostak has expanded Drakes' framework and has given SETI a goal.

MORE MOORE:

Richer All the Time

Fisking Sci Am

JOIN THE SEARCH:

SETI@home
Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:44 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Mother's Little Helper

FuturePundit Randall Parker reports that pregnant women often receive stem-cell therapy from the children they are carrying. Not only that, mothers (past and present) may turn out to be one of the best sources for fetal stem cells:

It is possible that many years after a pregnancy there are no longer cells in the mother's body that are fetal and capable of becoming all cell types. But a better point at which to try to catch fetal cells from the blood stream of women would be while they are still pregnant or perhaps shortly after giving birth. If fully pluripotent stem cells can be isolated from the blood of pregnant women then this may well provide a source for such cells that will not raise religious hackles.

Randall notes a certain irony:

A confirmation of this result poses what seems to me an ethical problem for the religious opponents of embryonic stem cell research. If developing embryos effectively are donating human embryonic stem cells (hESC) to mothers and literally doing cell therapy to mothers then this natural process is doing something that at least some hESC therapy opponents consider to be morally repugnant.

It will be interesting to see where the various hESC research opponents come down on this result. Will they oppose the extraction of embryonic stem cells from a mother's blood while she is pregnant. If so, on what moral basis?

My guess is that a large fraction of the hESC research opponents will decide that extraction of hESC from a mother's blood is morally acceptable. No fetus will be killed by the extraction. The cells so extracted are not cells that would go on to become a complete new human life. If a sizable portion of the religious hESC opponents can be satisfied by this approach for acquiring hESC then Bianchi's research may well lead to a method to get hESC that will open the gates to a much larger effort to develop therapies based on hESC.

Read the whole thing, including the comments. One reader observes that the opponents of stem cell research may spin this into a victory for their side, which might put the future of therapeutic cloning in jeopardy. This may be. On the other hand, if a means of acquiring embryonic stem cells can be developed that is acceptable to both sides of the debate, who's to say that a mutually agreeable form of cloning (or a subsitute procedure providing the same benefits) can't be developed?

One thing is for sure: it will prove a lot easier to "win" the stem cell debate by coming up with a solution that both sides like than it would have been to get one side to agree that we should walk away, or the other side to agree that it's okay to kill an embryo. There's a lot to be said for the win-win scenario.

Posted by Phil at 09:10 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 23, 2004

Nobel Prize Winning Geneticist Dr. Ed Lewis Has Died

Dr. Ed Lewis, one of the last of the old geneticists who worked with fruit flies prior to Watson and Crick's description of the DNA molecule, passed away Wednesday.

Author and longtime collaborator Howard Lipshitz, in a book published this year, described Lewis' research as "the bridge linking experimental genetics as conducted in the first half of the 20th century, and the powerful molecular genetic approaches that revolutionized the field in its last quarter."

In awarding Lewis the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine [in 1995], the Nobel committee cited him for identifying and classifying "a small number of genes that are of key importance in determining the body plan and the formation of body segments."

Lewis obviously loved his work. He retired in 1988, but kept an active schedule in his laboratory until recently when his health began to fail from cancer.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 22, 2004

X-Prize Announcement Coming July 27

Yesterday the X Prize Foundation alerted the media that "several key announcements" will be made on July 27. Because the X-prize rules provide that any contestant must give 60 day prior notice before attempting to win the prize, there is speculation that the announcement will be a flight schedule for SpaceShipOne.

According to the X Prize Foundation press statement today, “representatives from major teams including Burt Rutan from the American Scaled Composites team and Brian Feeney from the Canadian da Vinci Project team will be present [for the announcement].

Burt Rutan has said that when his team does shoot for the prize it will make three flights instead of the two required to win.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 12:41 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Better Parenting? Better Genes?

This bit of wonderful news about the state of American youth was making the rounds last week:

Extra! Extra! The big news of the past decade in America has been largely overlooked, and you'll find it shocking. Young people have become aggressively normal.

Violence, drug use and teen sex have declined. Kids are becoming more conservative politically and socially. They want to get married and have large families. And, get this, they adore their parents.

The Mood of American Youth Survey found that more than 80 percent of teenagers report no family problems -- up from about 40 percent a quarter-century ago. In another poll, two-thirds of daughters said they would "give Mom an 'A.'

"In the history of polling, we've never seen tweens and teens get along with their parents this well," says William Strauss, referring to kids born since 1982. Strauss is author, with Neil Howe, of "Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation."

Not that anyone is complaining, but statistics like these raise some very serious questions. Or, let's be blunt, one major question:

What happened?

To turn on old song on it's head, "Why's there nothing the matter with kids these days?" Glenn Reynolds suggest that multiple factors are at work:

The question is, why are teens doing better? I think there are two answers. First, people noticed problems, and tried a lot of different approaches. Private organizations, church groups, schools, and -- especially -- parents started taking a greater role in educating teenagers and encouraging better behavior. As with teen pregnancy, no single policy solved the problem, but multiple approaches tended to make it better until something seen as insoluble just a few years ago began to look, well, solved.

The other reason for the improvement is simple learning. Parents -- who in the 1960s and 1970s thought they could pursue self-centered lifestyles without harming their kids -- learned that parenting isn't to be taken for granted. Likewise, teenagers gradually noticed things that were easy to miss when the culture of drugs and adolescent rebellion was new. However they look at age 17, the "cool" rebels tend to do worse later in life, and the geeks tend to do better. Just as smelly, desperate crackheads were the best anti-drug advertisement ever presented in the inner cities (far more persuasive than frying-egg commercials on television), so did unemployed loser guys and unwed welfare moms provide visible good reasons to stay in school, make good grades, and be careful about pregnancy.

When such a profound change occurs over such a short period of time, it seems natural to conclude that we're talking about behavioral changes. There is little room for any debate about nature vs. nurture, here. These kids must have pretty much the same genes as their parents, right? There hasn't been time for nature to play a role.

Right?

Well...let's take a look at some recent findings. Here's a study from the UK showing that, in monkeys, good mothering apparently makes the difference in whether offspring bearing a certain gene become aggressive:

Good mothering can abolish the impact of a "bad" gene for aggression, suggests a new study, adding spice to the "nature-versus-nurture" controversy.

And this might not just apply to monkeys:

Speaking on Monday at a press conference in London to mark the opening of a conference on genes and aggression, Suomi said that his results strongly mirror those of a study in 2002 co-led by Terrie Moffitt of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London.

For 26 years, she and her colleagues followed the fate of 1037 children born in 1972 in Dunedin, New Zealand. They found that children were much more likely to grow up to be aggressive and antisocial if they had inherited a "short" version of a gene called MAOA. It makes monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme which helps to break down neurotransmitters such as serotonin, and was less efficient in the individuals with the "short" version.

But carriers only went off the rails if they had had an awful, abusive upbringing. Carriers with good mothering were usually completely normal, showed the New Zealand study. Now, Suomi has replicated the finding in the monkeys, showing that carriers of the "short" MAOA gene only turned bad when denied good mothering. "Good mothering has a buffering effect," he says.

So the nature vs. nurture debate grows more complex. It appears that nurturing does, indeed, produce better socialized offspring, but it does this in conjunction with (or in this example, at odds with) natural mechanisms. So nature on its own isn't completely predictive.

But it may go deeper than that. As Kurzweil reported earlier this week:

Scientists have discovered that rat genes can be altered by the mother's behavior.

All newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene, they found. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.

(The original Wall Street Journal article is here. I don't know whether non-subscribers can access this one because I stay logged in all the time and it works for me.)

Anyhow, if human physiology is similar to that of rats in this regard (which is a leap, I realize) it's just possible that kids are better today because we've actually made them...better. Maybe they aren't just making better use of what nature gave them, maybe nature has — through the good offices of their parents — given them a little more to work with than the previous generation had.

Posted by Phil at 10:21 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

The Gift of Understatement

Paul Hsieh on the new version six of the Internet Protocol:

The new IPv6 internet naming and number protocol will make it possible for every person (or device) on Earth to have their own IP address.

Well, er, yeah...and then some. The linked article repeats the same modest claim before getting to heart of the matter:

Vinton Cerf of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) said the next-generation protocol, IPv6, had been added to its root server systems, making it possible for every person or device to have an Internet protocol address.

Cerf said about two-thirds of the 4.3 billion Internet addresses currently available were used up, adding that IPv6 could magnify capacity by some "25,000 trillion trillion times."

I heard our friend Alex Lightman talking about this a while back. He estimates that IPv6 will provide enough IP addresses so that every atom in the known universe can have one.

Now that oughta hold us for a while.

Posted by Phil at 08:51 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Black Holes Suck

(Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

It seems that one of our most cherished beliefs about black holes has been disproved. Stephen Hawking himself delivers the bad news:

"I'm sorry to disappoint science fiction fans, but if information is preserved there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes," he said. "If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe, but in a mangled form, which contains the information about what you were like, but in an unrecognizable state."

Another consequence of his new calculations, Dr. Hawking said, is that there is no baby universe branching off from our own inside the black hole, as some theorists, including himself, have speculated.

Well, this doesn't completely disprove the selfish biocosm hypothesis, as expounded by James N. Gardner in his book, Biocosm. But it looks as though intelligence-friendly universes are going to have to find a different way to reproduce. Black holes won't cut it.

Posted by Phil at 07:02 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 21, 2004

The Council, Installment #2

Read Installment #1

The minutes dragged on while Patricia waited for Jim to bring back her digipass. She declined the second sandwich and nibbled her fruit salad instead as Randall continued his description of the Council’s interrogation process.

“They think as one,” Randall said. “Don’t let that spook you.”

“Think as one? I thought you said that they speak as one.” Irritation at Randall’s vagueness pricked at her barely contained composure. “You’ve seen my files, Randall. What work do you think is questionable?”

A small brown bird landed on the window ledge and cocked its head expectantly, drawing Randall Drayton’s attention. Instead of answering Patricia’s question, he swept some crumbs from the tablecloth into his hand and stepped to the window, unlatching the bottom half of the screen and dropping the crumbs on the sill. The bird hopped in and began to peck daintily.

“Randall?” Patricia’s foot began to tap impatiently under the table. “What do you mean, they think as one?” she pressed.

Randall turned and stared, his brow furrowed. “You look as if you’ve never seen a common house sparrow, Patricia,” he said. “You really should get out more.” He shuffled to the table and stared into space as he took another sip of tea.

“Dr. Drayton? Are you all right?”

Randall regarded her with a slack, unfocussed expression.

Jim returned. Without taking his eyes off Randall, he handed Patricia her digipass. “It is undamaged,” he said. He slipped a pouch from his utility belt and turned his back to Patricia, blocking her view of Randall. A second later, she heard the faint hiss of a medijector.

“I should be going,” she whispered, wondering if she was safe here and beginning to doubt the credibility of anything Randall had said so far.

“But we haven’t even scratched the surface of what you need to know when you face the Council,” Randall protested, his eyes once again clear and focused.

Patricia pushed back her chair and stood up. Jim turned slowly in her direction. His eyes remained fixed in their sockets as his head moved, as if he were a camera panning the view. His mouth formed a bland robot smile that failed to reassure Patricia. Jim cocked his head like the bird that was still on the windowsill. “You should not go home, Dr. Bedford.”

“Why shouldn’t Dr. Bedford go home, Jim?” Randall asked in an unnaturally calm tone.

“Your orders, Sir, were to monitor newscasts today and alert you only if something unusual warrants your attention,” Jim said.

“Yes, Jim, those were my orders.”

“Something has happened that warrants your attention.” Jim still hadn’t taken his eyes off Patricia.

“What has happened, Jim?”

“There’s been an explosion in the vicinity of Dr. Bedford’s residence.”

“What do you mean, ‘in the vicinity’? Randall asked.

And a word exploded in Patricia’s brain. “Colter!”

* * *

After the explosion, alarms and loud human voices jarred Colter’s sensors, though muffled by the walls of the utility closet where he waited. He calibrated the sensory input with the new options he’d programmed in advance.

Mixed synthetic and organic compounds in the air. Smoke. Ash.

Avoid detection.

Damage confined to firewalls of Patricia’s apartment.

Avoid detection.

No humans harmed.

They will come. Avoid detection.

Remote laboratory camera and cable intact.

Avoid detection.

He switched on the tiny camera he’d planted inside Patricia’s apartment, set himself for timed deactivation so no one could trace his bioelectronic signal, and fell into oblivion.

* * *


Shakti Nmumbu slipped her six-foot-eight frame through a vertical slit in the molecular teleport membrane as casually as parting a curtain, and entered Patricia’s apartment.


Oblivious to the chaos of panicking humans running out of the complex, Shakti searched methodically through the burning rubble. Perspiration shimmered on her blue-black skin briefly, but sensors in her hair follicles reacted to the heat in the apartment and began to cool her before she noticed the discomfort. As she worked, touching, sniffing and tasting the charred objects, she sent a constant stream of data to the others on the Council.

Shakti examined a melted patch of synthetic hair and a scrap of bioneural insulation, allowing herself a momentary pang of disappointment. This evidence suggested that Dr. Bedford’s house robot had been a casualty of the explosion. But to be sure, she’d have to send a team to sift through every molecule in the place.

“I can’t decide if I admire you or feel sorry for you, Dr. Bedford,” Shakti said aloud, placing samples of debris in her pouch. This explosion was baffling. It bore none of the marks of The Council or its contract terrorists. “It’s just too damned convenient that this incident happened while you were visiting Dr. Drayton.”

Shakti hadn’t yet determined the explosive agent, though it seemed to have been perfectly measured and set to confine the damage to Patricia’s apartment. “It’s tragic that you lost your house robot and your work files,” she added, hoping the Council would appreciate her sarcasm.

She picked up a metal fragment, slicing her finger on a sharp edge. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she was tempted to lick the blood off her finger, but she resisted. It was better to let the nanobots in her bloodstream mend the wound. “If you were hoping to get sympathy from the Council, however,” she said, taking another look around before she summoned the teleporter, “you miscalculated.

"And," she sighed, "I’ve got to start bringing someone along with me on these cases. If not a human, then at least a robot. I’m starting to talk to myself.”

Taking a last look around, Shakti noticed a section of ceiling tiles undamaged by the blast. It was miniscule, only a few square centimeters. She could have reached up and extracted it, but she didn’t want to go to the trouble. That’s what the Sifters were designed to do. She sent a note tag for them.

The teleporter arrived, looking merely like a distortion in the space in front of her. Shakti parted the air and disappeared.

* * *

Patricia tore her eyes from the holospheric recording of the newscast. “Haz Mat teams are combing the area, even though there are no reports of human casualties. Officials will neither confirm nor deny whether the explosion dispersed radioactive or biological toxins,” the devastatingly beautiful female anchor said, “although they are evacuating a five mile radius.”

Patricia put her commpac to her ear one more time, but meeting silence, she flipped it shut.

“No response?” Randall asked gently.

She shook her head.

“That doesn’t mean he’s…”

“I know,” Patricia snapped before he could say the word.

“I never thought it would happen here,” Randall sighed. “Never thought anyone would consider the Midwest important enough to attack.”

“That’s why I settled here after I finished my tour in the Homeland Guard,” Patricia admitted. “I wanted to live someplace where I wouldn’t always be looking over my shoulder.”

“Maybe it wasn’t a terrorist. Just some kook.” Randall paced the kitchen.

“They’re all kooks, but if you mean it could have been a random kook and not an organized terror group… I guess that’s possible.”

Jim spoke. “Consider the odds, Patricia, of a random attack on your dwelling.”

Patricia began to tremble, almost imperceptibly. It began deep inside, as if her viscera were quaking. “I’ve tried to be compliant. I’ve never done anything to draw attention…” her voice rose and attenuated, a pathetic keening sound.

Jim took a step closer to her, cocking his head again, dilating his pupils, as if he’d never seen a human in such distress. “Dr. Drayton?” he began, and then his expression and posture froze.

Patricia looked imploringly from Jim to Randall, wishing she could trust at least one of them to remain functional.

“It’s all right, Patricia. He’s processing something.” Randall took Patricia’s hands in his and waited.

“Dr. Drayton?” Jim repeated, “It is no longer safe for you or Dr. Bedford to remain here.”

Randall steered Patricia to a chair and made her sit. “Your greatest and most threatening work may not have anything to do with DNA and homeland security, Patricia,” he said.

This time the thought breathed itself to life and she whispered, “Colter.”


* * *


Colter began to dream. He knew that it was only a function of his memory database resorting itself upon reactivation. The dream was vivid. He was standing over Patricia’s bed, watching her sleep. When she was awake, her face was never still, but now, it was relaxed, allowing him to measure her features. According to human standards, Patricia was considered attractive, but not beautiful. This could be explained by the measurements. Her right eyebrow, for example, was a centimeter higher than her left. The tiny flaws in the symmetry were barely noticeable, especially when her face was animated in conversation or intently set on work. But, according to his measurements, humans like Patricia were subtly defective.

Still in the dream state, Colter watched Patricia turn over in bed. He felt a surge in the program for protectiveness and loyalty. Statistically, she had many more perfect features than flawed ones. Perhaps that’s why she functioned so well.

Abruptly, a secondary program requested a rationale for measuring Patricia’s features. Colter analyzed. Before he could answer, Patricia faded and new images replaced her.

The woman he saw was perfect.

Colter came to full alertness, realizing that he was receiving the images from the camera he’d set in Patricia’s apartment; the recording of the woman collecting evidence.

Jim was correct about the Council humans, Colter reasoned as he measured the woman’s features. The Council humans were different. Not like Patricia. Better. But how?

It would take the Council humans an hour or two at most to conclude that Colter hadn’t been deactivated in the explosion. They would come looking for him, just like they would be looking for Patricia. And Drayton. And Jim.

Colter needed one thing from Patricia’s apartment. A sample of the enhanced human’s cellular material. A single hair, a skin cell, a piece of fingernail. For Jim. Jim would find a way to examine it.

Colter had to force the door; the heat had welded it shut. Patricia’s apartment was still smoldering. But there was nothing in it that couldn’t be replaced. Colter had made sure of that beforehand. He’d stowed Patricia’s work files in his own databanks. He would keep them safe for her.

A brownish red droplet, vivid in the black and gray ruin, caught his eye. He scooped it into a vial.

Avoid detection. The alarm clamored in his brain.

Colter tore his hair from his scalp. They would not be looking for a bald house robot model. He shuffled his programs, giving priority to the ones that would get him to safety, and then he turned off his high-order functions. This changed his bioelectronic signature, making him harder to identify. And if he were captured, he would not be able to give anyone data that would incriminate Patricia. His captors would have to extract it from him.

Pressing his body through the cracked-open door, Colter walked stiffly toward the stairway. Behind him, the air rippled and a throng of bald robots stepped into view in the middle of the hallway.

Colter shut the door behind him. He did not recognize them so he did not concern himself with them.

He didn’t have the vocabulary at the moment to call himself a fugitive. Colter simply obeyed the drive to keep moving.

Posted by Kathy at 09:11 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 20, 2004

Happy Moonday!

Rand Simberg remembers that fine July afternoon 35 years ago, and comments on where we are now:

Thirty-five years after Neil and Buzz walked on the moon, we have neither the NASA Mars base, or the huge spinning space colonies. But we're finally seeing new progress on a front in between those two visions. Forty years after the end of the X-15 program, we're recapitulating some of the early NASA program privately, and diversely, with the efforts of Burt Rutan and the other X-Prize contestants and suborbital ventures. They won't be diverted down a costly dead-end path of giant throwaway rockets. Instead they'll slowly and methodically evolve capabilities and markets, creating the infrastructure for low-cost access to space. Once we can afford to get, in Heinlein's immortal words, "halfway to anywhere," we'll finally be able to return to the moon, to complete the job begun by those first voyagers, and this time we'll be able to stay.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Here's what I had to say on the subject a year ago. Still seems relevant.

Via Rand, here's a hopeful scenario.

Posted by Phil at 04:13 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 19, 2004

Richer All the Time

A pair of recent essays on Tech Central Station by the indispensable Arnold Kling drive home (in no uncertain terms) how good the economic news looks to those willing to see beyond the pessimistic obsessions of the media and apocalyptic campaign rhetoric.

First, Kling reports that productivity is not only up, it's way up. In fact, it's blasting through the roof.

The 17 percent productivity growth from the first quarter of 2000 to the first quarter of 2004 stands head and shoulders above the growth rate for any comparable period. In fact, it is better than any eight-year period since 1976. In the first 13 quarters of the Bush Administration, the basic determinant of our standard of living increased by almost as much as during the entire 32 quarters of the Clinton Administration.

How's that? Come again? The basic determi-thingy of our what?

Kling spells it out for us:

Productivity is probably the single most important economic statistic. Productivity is what determines our standard of living. In the long run, productivity is what determines how much workers are paid.

Sustained high productivity growth would cancel out any possible economic worry. Global competition from low-wage workers? High productivity would protect our standard of living. Rising costs from Medicare? As I pointed out in The Great Race, high productivity would make the welfare state affordable (although not optimal). Environmental quality? High productivity would give us the resources to devote to addressing any challenge. On the other hand, low productivity growth would mean that our incomes will be low, our tax burden to pay for entitlements will be high, and environmental issues will be much harder to address.

So our single most important economic statistic is showing marked improvement — unprecedented improvement, in fact. While Kling bemoans the fact that only bad economic news seems to get covered, I find it oddly comforting that no one is making political hay out of these productivity numbers. The whole thing would seem a lot fishier if these figures were being trodded out to prove that President Bush is saving or wrecking the economy. (Of course, I don't actually know of a way that a productivity increase could be used to show that the economy is going downhill, but I don't doubt there are those who could.)

The one political (or perhaps I should say politicized) question that came to mind when reading these numbers was what impact, if any, outsourcing might have on productivity. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who have published a very handy little primer on productivity, the impact of outsourcing is greater than negligible, but not by much.

So here we have some extremely good news with very little downside. Kling's second essay, How Much Worse Off Are We? shows how productivity increases over the decades have raised our standard of living. Two tables tell the whole story. The first shows the change in the number of households lacking essential items over the past 100 years; the second shows the change in the number of households possesing certain luxury items over the same period of time. One item from the second table is especially telling. In 1970, 45% of all housholds had clothes dryers in them. Today, 45% of all poor households have clothes dryers in them.

That's right, Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974. The bar has been raised.

Economist J. Bradford DeLong makes the same point in an essay exploring the extreme increase in wealth that occured in the 20th century:

Suppose that you stuffed me and my family into a time machine, sent us back a century to 1890, and then gave us an income equal to eighteen times that of 1890 average GDP per worker–an income that would put us at the same place in the relative income distribution then as some $1,200,000 a year would today. We would not be among the 500 or so richest families in the country that might be invited to the most exclusive parties in the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island; but we would be among the next outer circle of 5,000 or so.

Would we be happy–or at least not unhappy–with the switch? Our power to purchase some commodities would be vastly increased: we would have at least three live-in servants, a fifteen-room house (plus a summer place). If we lived in San Francisco we would live on Russian Hill, if we lived in Boston we would live on Beacon Hill. If we lived in New York we would live on Park or Fifth Avenue.

But the answer is surely that we would not be happy. I would want, first, health insurance: the ability to go to the doctor and be treated with late-twentieth-century medicines. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled by polio. Nathan Meyer Rothschild–the richest man in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century–died of an infected abscess. Without antibiotic and adrenaline shots I would now be dead of childhood pneumonia. The second thing I would want would be utility hookups: electricity and gas, central heating, and consumer appliances. The third thing I want to buy is access to information: audio and video broadcasts, recorded music, computing power, and access to databases.

None of these were available at any price back in 1890.

Without a doubt, there is some connection between economic and technological development. Technological development fuels productivity growth, which in turn drives economic growth. This raises an interesting question: is there an economic version of Moore's Law? How fast is our standard of living increasing? If Poor 2004 = Middle Class 1974, is it fair to say that standard of living is doubling every 30 years? And if so, how does that rate of growth compared to what was experienced in years gone by?

My guess is that 30 years is a pretty short interval for Middle Class to be downgraded to Poor. And I bet the interval is getting shorter and shorter.

Posted by Phil at 11:57 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 16, 2004

I, Speculist

The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has put together a very cool website in conjunction with the relase of I, Robot.

Check it out...

Don't miss these interesting reflections on the Three Laws of Robotics, including one by our good friend Michael Anissimov, whose name — coincidentally, I'm sure — kind of sounds like "Isaac Asimov."

UPDATE:

Saw the movie over the weekend; found it somewhat disappointing. In line with Mr. Farlops' concerns (see comments) I think the really intriguing ideas get drowned out by formulaic action movie/cop movie tropes. Too bad.

Kurzweil provides a link to this article on the Three Laws. Money quote:

"Asimov's laws are about as relevant to robotics as leeches are to modern medicine," says Steve Grand, who founded the UK company Cyberlife Research and is working on developing artificial intelligence through learning. "They stem from an innocent bygone age, when people seriously thought that intelligence was something that could be 'programmed in' as a series of logical propositions."

Our friend ChefQuix says pretty much the same thing in the comments, below.

(Press release follows.)

SIAI RELEASES WEBSITE ON AI ETHICS COINCIDING WITH "I, ROBOT" FILM

ATLANTA, GA - In anticipation of 20th Century Fox's July 16th
release of I, Robot, the Singularity Institute announces "3 Laws
Unsafe" (http://www.asimovlaws.com). "3 Laws Unsafe" explores the
problems presented by Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, the
principles intended for ensuring that robots help, but never harm,
humans. The Three Laws are widely known and are often taken
seriously as reasonable solutions for guiding future AI. But are
they truly reasonable? "3 Laws Unsafe" addresses this question.

Tyler Emerson, Executive Director of the Singularity Institute:
"The release of I, Robot is a wonderful chance to engage more
people about the perils and promise of strong AI research. The
constraints portrayed in I, Robot appear extremely dangerous and
excessively lacking as an approach to moral AI. The Singularity
Institute's detailed approach, by contrast, utilizes advanced
technical research for creating a mind that is humane in nature."

"3 Laws Unsafe" will include articles by several authors, weekly
poll questions, a blog for announcements and commentary related to
I, Robot and the Three Laws, a free newsletter subscription, and a
reading list with books on relevant topics such as the future of
AI, accelerating change, cognitive science and nanotechnology.

The Singularity Institute's Advocacy Director, Michael Anissimov:
"It is essential that more considerate thinkers get involved in
dialogues of AI ethics and strategy. Although AI as a discipline
has a dubious history of false starts, the accelerating growth of
computing power and brain science knowledge will very likely result
in its creation at some point. In the past few years, technologists
such as Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy have been informing the public
about this critical issue; but much more awareness is now needed."

The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI) was
founded in 2000 for the pursuit of ethically enhanced intelligence
by creating humane AI. SIAI believes the ethical and significant
enhancement of intelligence will help solve contemporary problems,
such as disease and illness, poverty and hunger, more readily than
other philanthropic causes. SIAI is a tax-exempt non-profit
organization with branches in Canada and the United States.

Posted by Phil at 09:33 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

July 13, 2004

Better All The Time #16


There are so many exciting developments taking place every week that it's sometimes hard to narrow them down to seven. We'd like to think that the following items are a representative sample, but failing that, they're at least a good start.




Today's Good Stuff:

    Quote of the Day
  1. More Hardware from Veggies
  2. Stem Cells Grow Up
  3. Hope for Hubble
  4. Now All We Need is a Tiny, Portable Sofa
  5. Bug-Proof Duds
  6. Stoneage Sistine Chapel Discovered
  7. Is This Really "Good" News?

- - - - -


Quote of the Day

Only those who will risk going too far, can possibly find out how far they can go

-- T. S. Eliot


Top

- - - - -

Item 1
You Call it Corn, We Call it Optical Disks

In September 2003, Sanyo Electric introduced the concept of a new optical disc, dubbed 'MildDisc' and based on poly lactid acid produced from corn. These discs will have a lifetime of 50 to 100 years and are biodegradable.

The good news:

A CD made from corn? What could be better for running on your spinach-powered laptop? We live in amazing times.

The downside:

The disks have been delayed coming to market. Apparently they do not do well with high temperatures. (Is it possible that their failure is accompanied by a loud popping sound?)

Anyway...

Roland Piquepaille comments on the production of the disks:

[H]ere are interesting numbers. Sanyo said that an ear of corn would be enough to deliver 10 discs. There are about 9 billions of CDs produced annually, and the yearly world corn production is estimated to be around 600 million tons. So only 0.1 percent of the world corn's production would be enough to satisfy the worldwide disc market, according to the company.

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Item 2
If I Only Had a Heart, the Nerve, some...Teeth


Our good friend Randall Parker, the FuturePundit himself, has run a series of stories over the past week about major breakthroughs in the use of adult stem cells:

Helmut Drexler of University of Freiburg, Germany and his colleagues treated sufferers of acute myocardial infarctions (i.e. heart attacks) with bone marrow stem cells and found that the bone marrow stem cells boosted the volume of blood pumped by the left ventricle of the heart.

...

Better Humans reports on research by Siddharthan Chandran of the University of Cambridge, UK Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair on the use of a mix of growth factors to successfully turn skin cells into neural stem cells.

...

Working with freshly extracted human third molars (wisdom teeth) scientists have been able to isolate stem cells that can turn into the ligament that hold teeth into place.

The good news:

Adult stem cells are the often-ignored older siblings of embryonic stem cells, which hold so much promise and which are surrounded by so much controversey. The conventional wisdom is that embryonic stem cells are more or less "universal assemblers" capable of replenishing or creating anew virutally any cell in the body, where adult stem cells are much less flexible, having only one direction that they can grow. The second item cited above, which describes adult skin cells being converted to neural stem cells, would appear to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom. We may yet see universal cell assemblers grown from adult cells. And even if we don't, it seems that new applications for adult stem cells are being found all the time — which is tremendous news in its own right.

The downside:

Randall explains:

In the United States the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is throwing up roadblocks even for adult stem cell therapy. The FDA's stance has nothing to do with the debate about embryonic stem cells. Rather, it is part of the FDA's never-ending quest to protect people with fatal diseases from the risk that experimental therapies might harm them. In my view people with fatal diseases ought to be allowed to try experimental therapies and the FDA's position both slows the rate at which treatments are developed and unjustifiably takes away the individual's right to choose which treatment risks are worth taking.

Hear, hear.

Anyway...

It's encouraging to see that progress is being made in so many different areas at once. We can expect to hear a lot more about adult stem cell therapy in the months and years to come.

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Item 3
Keep Hubble Repair Options Open - Experts

NASA should not rule out sending a shuttle to fix the aging Hubble Space Telescope, an expert panel told the space agency on Tuesday, six months after a planned repair mission was dismissed as too risky.

The good news:

We are big believers that the Hubble telescope, which has opened the eyes of the world to a universe we could scarcely have imagined, is worth saving. It's gratifying to see NASA coming to the same conclusion.

Anyway:

In a week in which the Cassini probe has survived being peppered by ring chunks, and speculation is increasing about passengers on SpaceShipOne, we didn't want to miss this very positive development.

Obscure Blogosphere Reference:

James Taranto would have headlined this piece as follows:

What Would the Hubble Telescope Do Without Experts?

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Item 4
New Portable Multimedia Entertainment Devices Head for Stores

Get ready to feel obsolete with your iPod. Portable media players will be available within weeks, and they store and play not only music, but movies, recorded TV shows, and photo slide shows.

The good news:

These gadgets can be configured with up to 40 GB of storage, "enough to store every episode of The Simpsons." Kawabunga, Dude!

The downside:

The screen sizes are 3.5 and 3.8 inches, which might prove to be a bit of a strain for tired old eyes. Also, at an estimated street price of $500, they are a smidge more expensive than an iPod.

On the other hand...

It's 1984.

The phone rings, and you answer it. It's you, calling from the future:

"Hey, Me-From-20-Years-Ago. How's it going?"

"Okay. How about with you, Me-From-20-Years-Ahead?"

"Great! You'll never guess what I just bought."

"Tell me."

"Well, it's a portable combination TV, VCR, stereo."

"Portable? What does it use, tiny little tapes?"

"No tapes. It stores everything in computer memory."

"No kidding. Can it hold as much as a six-hour extended play vhs tape?"

"It can hold hundreds of hours of video and music."

"Whoah. So you say it's portable. What does it weigh, 15-20 pounds?"

"It weighs about the same as your beloved Sony Walkman. And it's just a little bigger than the Walkman. You could carry it in your coat pocket if you wanted to."

"I don't believe it! How much did it cost?"

"Guess."

"Well, let's see. I just bought some stuff. My TV cost me about $500. My VCR was about $200. My stereo was about $300. That's $1,000 in 1984 money. I'm thinking the device you're talking about must have set you back a good $10,000. What, are we like rich in the future?"

"Gotta go. See you in 20!"

"But, wait I want to know —"

[Click]

So you see, "expensive" is a relative notion.


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Item 5
West Nile fears boost protective clothing sales

Recently, the battle of man vs. insect has spawned a new tool: clothes that appear normal in every way, except for their built-in repellent that keeps bugs at bay.

"This is the first new development in personal insect protection since DEET," says Haynes Griffin, CEO of Buzz Off Insect Shield of Greensboro, N.C. DEET is the active ingredient in most tick and insect repellents.

The active ingredient in Buzz Off clothing is permethrin, a synthetic version of pyrethrum, a natural insect repellent derived from the daisy-like flowers of a plant in the chrysanthemum family.

The good news:

You might be wondering just how effective these bug-proof clothes really are. It seems that West Point Academy has reported a reduction in the incidence of Lyme disease from 10 cases to zero one year after switching to field uniforms made from the fabric.

That's pretty impressive.

The downside:

In the long run, insect-proof clothes are probably bad news for, say, the people who make Off.

Anyway...

The Better All The Time Wardrobe grows. Insect-proof clothes now join power-generating clothes, self-cleaning clothes, and bullet-proof shirts.

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Item 6

A Stoneage Sistine Chapel

An elaborately decorated cave ceiling with artwork dating to 13,000 years ago has been found in Nottinghamshire, England, according to a press release issued today by the University of Sheffield.

The site of the find, Church Hole Cave at Creswell Crags, is being called the "Sistine Chapel" of the Ice Age because it contains the most ornate cave art ceiling in the world. The ceiling extends the earliest rock art in Britain by approximately 8,000 years and suggests that a primary culture unified Europeans during the Ice Age.

The good news:

The fact that this important find is just now being discovered in a well-known cave is evidence of how much we still can still learn from known archeological sites.

The scope of the discovery:

Jon Humble, inspector of ancient monuments for a preservation group called English Heritage, commented, "The text books say that there is no cave art in Britain. These will now have to be rewritten. It is remarkable to consider that some 500 generations ago people created pictures on the wall of the caves depicting the world that they knew, which certainly was not as we know it."

Moreover...

It seems we know less than we think we do about the world we live in. There's more to learn, folks.

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Item 7
Extended Life For Baby Boomers!

In a radio interview, famous futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that health conscious baby boomers have a good shot of living long enough to benefit from life extension technologies - to bootstrap into indefinite lifespans.

On "Living Forever," Kurzweil discussed how to dramatically slow down the aging process, even stop and reverse it, and the social and cultural ramifications. He also described his forthcoming book, "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever," co-authored with Terry Grossman, M.D.

"The book makes the scientific case that immortality is within our grasp," says Kurzweil. "Our health program enables people to slow aging and disease processes to such a degree that we can remain in good health and spirits until the more radical life-extending and life-enhancing technologies, now in the research and testing pipeline, become available.

Here's an real audio link to the interview.


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Better All The Time is compiled by Phil Bowermaster, Stephen Gordon, and Kathy Hanson. Live to see it!


Posted by Phil at 07:52 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

July 12, 2004

A Modest Proposal

The Prince of Wales is once again warning about the dangers of nanotechnology:

The Prince acknowledges nanotechnology is a "triumph of human ingenuity".

"Some of the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling the construction of much cheaper fuel-cells, or new ways of combating ill-health," he says.

But he adds: "How are we going to ensure that proper attention is given to the risks that may... ensue?

Your Highness, maybe you ought to think about joining the Foresight Institute, where they've been planning for nanotechnology for more than a decade — including giving the "proper attention" to the risks involved.

If money is tight, there are several membership options available.

Posted by Phil at 07:27 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 08, 2004

Power Threads

Amazing Science News from Iowa!

Iowa Thin Film Technologies, a companyin Ames, IA, (where I live) has completed

"the development of integrated solar technology for three Army tent prototypes. The tents integrate the company's PowerFilm® flexible solar panels directly with the tent fabric. Iowa Thin Film Technologies says that it is the only company in the world that has developed this fabric integration solar technology.

Power output from the three tents ranges from approximately 200 Watts to 1 Kilowatt. Several tents can be joined for additional power. The generated power will be stored in a bank of batteries and used for a variety of purposes, ranging from lighting to ventilation to power for field communication radios, GPS systems, and recharging satellite phones and laptop computers."

Okay, maybe we won't be plugging into our clothing -- it probably wouldn't have enough surface area to generate useable power. Let's hope that in the future, none of us will be big enough to wear a tent!

Posted by Kathy at 05:57 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #143

In the future, we may be plugging our gear into our clothes

Posted by Kathy at 01:39 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Kinda Looks Like a Vegematic

WARNING: the link below leads to some fairly graphic material, particularly wince-inducing for guys.

Gizmodo explains the one area in which he is a luddite. You and me both, buddy.

(via GeekPress.)

Posted by Phil at 09:38 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 07, 2004

The Council, Installment #1

Stephen Gordon sent the first draft, a well-crafted premise for a story about ... well, I'll let Stephen elaborate in another post.

Here's what's become of "The Council:"

Patricia Bedford’s robotic butler was standing in the middle of her doorway, blocking her exit. Though it was odd behavior, it would be a waste of time to tell him so. “Colter, please run your diagnostic,” she said. “I have to leave now. You know how tight my schedule is today.”

Colter’s pupils constricted as he redirected neural pathways to process Patricia’s commands. Most people wouldn’t have noticed, but Patricia Bedford’s attention to detail was one quality that set her apart from her peers in genetic research. Colter’s response lagged a full second longer than it should have, confirming her suspicion: the robot was malfunctioning. It was hard to believe, but undeniable. Fierce objectivity was another attribute that served Patricia in her work. But she was already two minutes behind schedule, and didn’t have time to deal with it. If she missed her train she would have to wait ten minutes more for the next one.

“Colter, new command! Run full diagnostic. Ignore today’s agenda until I give clearance.” She flicked a piece of lint from her dark suit as she left the apartment, wishing it were as easy to brush aside the sense of foreboding rising in her stomach. Her current research demanded rigorous discipline, and with Colter’s assistance, she’d settled into a strict routine that hadn’t varied in months. She’d reprogrammed him to do high-order tasks not normally given to robots and he’d functioned brilliantly until now. In fact, the only reason she hadn’t published a paper about it was that she couldn’t afford the controversy.

The malfunction was probably her fault.

Patricia’s soft-soled shoes muted her footsteps along the stainless steel walkway leading to the trains. Like the few neighbors in her complex who commuted to work, she practiced an expression that was polite but not inviting. She had too much on her mind for small talk.

Reaching the toll slot, Patricia reached for her digipass, but her hand came away empty. The pass wasn’t clipped to her pocket.

Foreboding turned to dread. Colter had never failed to organize her accessories. She turned to retrace her steps and bumped into something solid, finding herself looking up into Colter’s face.

In a motion surprisingly graceful for a robot, Colter’s arms encircled Patricia before she could stumble. As she regained her balance, he released her and dangled the digipass in front of her. If it were possible for a robot to look sheepish, Colter would have.

“Colter, run your diagnostic and send me the results,” she muttered, as if speaking in a normal tone might embarrass him. She yanked the digipass from his hand, quelling her frustration before it got the better of her. She’d missed her train and snapping at her robot wouldn’t change that.

Patricia was surprised to find a seat on the 6:50 train. She always had to stand on the 6:40. She caught her own reflection in the window. In the fluorescent glare, her features looked harsh and pale. She pulled her hair from behind her ears and tousled her dark, shiny bob with her fingers before turning from the window. She didn’t have time for vanity either.


There was a robot standing in the doorway to Patricia’s office when she arrived. It was one of the sexless models that gave her the creeps with its bald head and naked face and ambiguously sensuous lips. It turned its lidless eyes to meet hers and she felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. Not one given to flights of imagination, she nonetheless felt judged and found lacking by this arrogant-looking machine. Her thoughts turned to Colter, her sandy-haired, hazel-eyed model. “A splendid blend of Celtic features, an archetype designed to subliminally reassure a person desiring a sense of security and trustworthiness,” the brochure had promised. She’d purchased him because, as an unattached female working in a closely scrutinized field of research, commuting at odd hours, she needed a robot that was trustworthy and strong.

"Dr. Patricia Bedford?" The robot process server held an envelope in its extended hand. The envelope displayed no address or identifying markings of any kind except a distinctive raised logo: three androgynous faces in profile - young, middle-aged, and old – surrounding a small decagon.

Patricia's heart sank. "Yes?" She knew why she was being served even as she was being handed the package.

Patricia was being served by the "3 Score 10” Council.

She pulled a single sheet of paper from the envelope. The Council logo was artfully integrated with the letterhead design.

Dr. Patricia Bedford
4583 Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL

RE:

Bedford:

Your presence is required at the offices of the “3 Score 10 Council”
October 8, 2084. 9:00 a.m. EST.

3 Score 10 Council

Patricia stared at the empty “regarding” line. There was no need to spell out the subject of the summons. The Council could call up anyone at will for an alleged trespass of the law. This possibility had dogged her for her entire career, and she had bent over backwards to remain above reproach. DNA Studies was the most highly regulated of all approved sciences. If it weren't for its importance in strategic defense, her field would have been the first to be eliminated.

The power of the Council could not be denied. Active members had even been given tax amnesty. "I thought taxes were a certainty," Patricia had said to Colter when she heard it on the news while eating the cake he had made for her thirty-fifth birthday.

“”Only two things are certain: death and taxes,’” Colter had quoted. “An ancient aphorism attributed to Benjamin Franklin.” And then, his mouth had turned up in a stiff robot grin, as though he appreciated the irony. As his features settled back into his normal engaging, attentive expression, he said, "Perhaps since the Council members are being paid with tax money, it simplifies bookkeeping for the government. "

"Not being taxed would simplify things for me, too,” Patricia said around a mouthful of cake. “Anyway, other government employees pay taxes, why should the Council be exempt?"

Colter had answered, "Maybe they took a paycut to get it."

"Wanna bet on that?" Patricia had retorted. It was only after she had gone to bed that night that it had struck her: Colter’s remarks had not come from any data base she recognized. They had been speculative. And his language had been flawlessly colloquial.

She’d tossed in her big, empty bed. She wasn’t familiar with anyone else’s household robot, so she had no reference with which to compare Colter. Burying her head in her pillow to stifle the self-deprecating chuckle that had threatened to erupt, she’d realized that Colter’s social life was probably more developed than her own. At least he got out of the house to do errands.

She’d just celebrated her thirty-fifth birthday with a robot.

Patricia had sat straight up in bed then. At thirty-five, she was exactly halfway to three score and ten. If she was anxious about the ticking of her biological clock, it wasn’t concerning babies. It was about getting her work out there. If she could finish, then , if someone found fault with her scrupulous methods, she wouldn’t have failed utterly. No one could completely suppress the results.

She was so close.

In the days leading up to her appointment, Patricia worked solely from home. Colter’s diagnostic program suggested some routine maintenance she could accomplish online. She restricted him to household functions and began the laborious task of gathering the documentation of her work.

Colter spoke very little and Patricia fought the temptation to project anthropomorphic causes for his sudden terseness.

One morning, she found that Colter had rearranged the files on her desk. Prominently out of order was one labeled “Dr. Randall Drayton.” Patricia calmed herself with the notion that it was just a coincidence. Colter couldn’t possibly know anything about Dr. Drayton’s research or his history.

But, she acknowledged, it wouldn’t hurt to seek the advice of the elderly colleague. Although they hadn’t spoken in years, Dr. Drayton took her call and eagerly set up a meeting at his home.

Dr. Randall’s house was small but comfortable and attractive, a refreshing contrast to the sterile, inner city apartment complex where Patricia lived. As she got out of the autocab, she noticed the robotic lawn man cheerfully weeding the flowerbed. He stood up as she approached, "Good day, Ma'am. Who may I say is calling?" he asked, doffing his hat to reveal salt-and-pepper hair.

Patricia couldn’t help smiling. This model was designed as an older man, complete with crows’ feet and deep smile lines. The calm, deep-set eyes held uncanny dignity.

"Dr. Patricia Bedford," she answered, and tipped her head as if in deference to an elder.

"Very good. You're expected. " The robot’s eyes caught the sunlight in a most human-like twinkle.

He escorted Patricia inside Drayton's study. “Dr. Bedford has arrived.” The robot’s voice rang like a herald into the dim recesses of the room.

Drayton stopped rifling through the computer files displayed on the top of his desk. He waived his hand over the desktop and the image disappeared. "Good morning Patricia," he said, turning and standing in one fluid motion.

She reached out to shake his hand, "Dr. Drayton."

"Please, call me Randall. Except for that project on which we consulted in Miami, I haven't been active professionally in almost thirty years."

Patricia guessed that he was past his own "three score and ten" by at least a decade, but the years had not dimmed the intelligence she saw in his eyes. Without a word, she presented her summons and then briefly explained the nature of her work. She did not have to explain why she was seeking his advice. His "retirement" thirty years earlier had not been voluntary.

“Come with me to the garden,” he said, handing the summons letter back to her. “It’s resplendent in its late summer excess. Jim hardly has time to engage me in chess these days,” Randall chuckled, waving to the robot, who had resumed his place weeding a patch of purple delphinium. Abruptly, Randall turned to Patricia and the amicable light in his eyes ignited with passion. “No matter how many years one is given, life is too short.” He touched his forehead as if remembering something. “Forgive me,” he said. “Mid-September has that effect on me.”

Patricia did not ask him to elaborate.

As they strolled a worn sandstone path, Patricia inhaled the earthy aromas of mature foliage basking in warm sun. She hadn’t been outside in months. Her mind slowed its racing, her lids drooped.

"When you go in, show deference to the Council, but do not admit any wrongdoing,” Randall said, startling her into remembering why she had come. “Remind them that studies in sanctioned sciences can often lead to inferences in forbidden areas.” He pointed a long finger in her direction. “So long as the inference is not intentional and the experiment advances sanctioned science, you should have nothing to fear."

"Should have?" She didn't like that emphasis.

"If your research is too close to a sensitive area, it doesn't matter what your intentions were or whether sanctioned science was advanced.”

“Is that what happened to you?"

Randall’s mouth drew a thin-lipped smile.

"How am I supposed to know if I get too close?” Patricia pressed. “Beyond very general outlines, they won't even allow discussions of forbidden areas." Her complaint sounded obvious and naïve to her own ears.

"You can't know. That's the risk you take in your area of study." Randall plucked a mauve chrysanthemum and handed it to her. “But you knew that when you began,” he said.

From the corner of her eye, Patricia saw Jim standing very straight and still, as inanimate as a garden statue. She felt an illogical sense of disappointment. Jim was a robot, after all.

Why, then, did she feel so bereft?

As if he read her mind, Jim cocked his head at the sun and then walked over to them. “Will our guest be staying for lunch?” he asked.

Randall studied Patricia’s face. With one of his long, elegant fingers, he wiped a tear from her eye as if gathering dew from a flower petal. “Please,” he said. And Patricia wondered at the ambiguity of that word.

As if the thread in his narrative of the Council had never been broken, Drayton picked it up a few moments later, over chicken salad on fresh raisin bread, "They ask questions and then retire in private to consider their joint ruling.”

“What kind of questions?” Patricia asked, somewhat distracted by the intense flavors of the homemade meal. “What joint ruling?”

“They speak as one," Drayton said, chewing methodically and taking a long drink of tea. He thought for a moment and then added, "But I guess you do get an idea of who is most hostile from the questions they ask. There was one tall gentleman, had to be six-five, grilled me all afternoon. I was held over to the next day."

Jim leaned close to Patricia to refresh her iced tea. Wearing a towel draped over his arm like a waiter, he moved with solemn precision. Patricia gasped when the towel slid off his arm and fell onto her lap, dislodging her digipass from its clip.

“I beg your pardon,” Jim said. He examined the digipass. “It’s damp from the towel. With your permission, I’ll dry it and make sure that it isn’t damaged.”

Patricia looked at Randall for reassurance. Randall nodded, and Jim took the digipass, leaving the room.

“A very trustworthy model, my Jim,” Randall said. “More chicken salad?”

Posted by Kathy at 07:41 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

July 06, 2004

Homefront Heroes!

Citizen Smash, Joanie, and friends made excellent use of the Fourth of July weekend. While the rest of us were downing brats and swilling beer, these folks were standing up for freedom and the truth.

Way to go!


Posted by Phil at 08:43 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 05, 2004

Mystery? What Mystery?

It would seem that there is some controversy surrounding what we all know to be the Book of the Greater Magic. Paul Hsieh reveals that apparently neither he nor the cryptography experts at the Scientific American have been reading Stillness, especially some of the later chapters. From the SA article:

Voynich asked the leading cryptographers of his day to decode the odd script, which did not match that of any known language. But despite 90 years of effort by some of the world's best code breakers, no one has been able to decipher Voynichese, as the script has become known. The nature and origin of the manuscript remain a mystery. The failure of the code-breaking attempts has raised the suspicion that there may not be any cipher to crack. Voynichese may contain no message at all, and the manuscript may simply be an elaborate hoax.

I note with some interest that parallel universe hypothesis has not been specifically ruled out.

Posted by Phil at 11:52 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Why It 'Can't Be Done'

Lawrence Lessig writing for Wired:

But as Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, later told me, it's hard to call molecular manufacturing "impossible" when it's precisely what living cells do every moment of the day. It may be hugely complex, he said, and as all agree, it is certainly years away. "But I would hesitate," this sensible administrator admitted, "to call it impossible."

So why do some scientists say it can't be done? As the editors of Chemical & Engineering News put it, Smalley's "objections go beyond the scientific." They are a strategy - if so-called dangerous nanotech can be relegated to summer sci-fi movies and forgotten after Labor Day, then serious work can continue, supported by billion-dollar funding and uninhibited by the idiocy that buries, for example, stem cell research.

Given the politics of science, this strategy is understandable. Yet it is a strategy inspired not by the laws of nature but by the perverse nature of how we make laws. We are cowards in the face of Bill Joy's nightmare. We dissemble rather than reason, because we can't imagine rational government policy addressing these reasonable fears.

He is right on the money, as usual. Something has got to change. Government, which tends to put the I's in "institutionalize" anyway, begins to look particularly mossbacked in an age of accelerating change. Perhaps we're going to need a singularity of a different sort?

(via InstaPundit)

Posted by Phil at 11:26 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 02, 2004

ITF #142

In the Future...

...there will be robots custom-built to do exactly this sort of job.

Futurist: M104 member Robert Hinkley.

Posted by Phil at 08:14 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack